Friday, November 21, 2014

NaNoWriMo '14: Hobbling into the Home Stretch; Flying to the Finish—Recapping Week 3

It's been two long weeks since my last blog post, recapping National Novel Writing Month's first week. I wish I could report that this lapse has been due to a preoccupation with this year's novel—and it wouldn't exactly be a lie if I did. However, if I'm to be completely honest, there just hasn't been all that much to say. The truth is, I took my eye off the ball, and I've been chasing after it in tragicomic fashion ever since. The writing seemed a little flat after the initial burst of progress, the thread had gotten lost; whatever the reason, I stopped writing. There's still more than a week left in the WriMo, and I'm not without the necessary amounts of hope and determination to see the month through to the close. It will be an uphill climb, though—there's no mistaking that. I'll put the challenge in proper perspective, but let's have some good news first: a few days after my last post, I put up an excerpt for my novel, and the response was almost alarmingly positive.

The Excerpt

As is perhaps too often the case, I began a night of writing by venturing onto Twitter; more often than not, that's as far as my nights have gotten. During 2013's WriMo, I would have been lost without the camaraderie and writing sprints afforded by the writing community on Twitter, but only in these last few days have I realized that this year's novel is a much more solitary effort. That's as far as the writing's concerned; for my own well-being, there's still been nothing like the support we give each other throughout this challenging month, and I highly doubt I'd still be in the hunt at all if it weren't for the friends I've made there. 

Case in point:  I'd logged on to Twitter one night in the second week of the WriMo, and found a group pressuring each other into sharing excerpts from their novels. I'd been extremely reluctant to do so—even posting a synopsis seemed counterproductive, somehow. Maybe it's the risk I would have been taking by exposing a severely rough draft to public scrutiny, or worse yet the pressure I'd experience should the reaction prove positive enough. Both of these results eventually came to pass, and it took me at least a week to recover. Having recovered, though, it's the positive responses that stay with me, and help me to continue on despite having fallen so desperately behind. 

In the interest of embracing those fears and the rewards I may still reap for persevering despite them, here now is that same excerpt. From my NaNoWriMo 2014 novel, A Stranger in the City of Dis:
It’s 6:30 in the morning, and I am obnoxiously awake. Sleep and I have never been on the best of terms, but lately the relationship has bordered on abusive. After lying on the couch for about half an hour, waiting for sleep that spitefully refuses to come, I sit up and scowl at the still-black sky outside. We haven’t even set the clocks back yet, but sunrise is still a long ways off. As fitful as the night’s sleep had been, at least it was sleep. I resign myself to another long and exhausting day, and get up to fix some breakfast.
By the time the sun begins poking through the hazy gray remnants of last night’s storm, I’m fed and caffeinated—overly so, as the machine once again dumped grounds into the pot and I, bleary eyed and too irritated to care, likewise dumped most of those grounds into my over-sized mug. I think of that cliché boast, “You have to get up pretty early in the morning…” and it brings a bitter grin to my face, because Life certainly did today. Got me real good, the bastard.
I sit at my desk, looking out onto the dimly lit strip of lawn that separates the complex and a stretch of power lines that skirts the edge of the city, and I wonder—how has it come to this? I’d had such aspirations, once. I’d been young and full of hope despite countless obstacles and stumblings; I thought I’d made so much progress away from those darker days, and yet here I am, alone with my books, this flea-bitten cat, and day after damnable day of impossibly malignant luck. Everything about this place feels wrong—not just the apartment, but the whole of the city itself. But what could I have done? Dis is no normal city; there’s a gravity here that makes escape velocity nigh-impossible to achieve. Nothing seems right about it, it’s incapable of salvation. It’s a fact that stains every single citizen, each of us doomed by virtue of our having been spat into the world here.
It seems too much, to blame an entire city. Maybe it’s just me that’s wrong. Maybe I’m just not right for this place. Maybe I never have been…
Dis is not, or rather was not, an inherently bad city, in and of itself. These days, it seems a fell poison hangs in the very air and depresses the souls of the city’s denizens, much as real poison once gushed from the smokestacks of its infamous mills. I imagine there was a time in which life flourished in a hopeful spirit; by the time I was born, however, the damage had been done.
The city had long since earned its reputation as a modest crime capital, and the effects of the steel industry’s collapse had dealt the town a mortal blow. It’s something the city has never let itself forget. To this day, one can still hear people bemoaning the loss of the mills, and though the cries have lost something of their intensity, there’s little reason to expect them to end until the city is wholly populated by those too young to recall the days of factories and forges.
It’s just the sort of town this is, filled with unfocused anger, seething bitterness; a town that rehashes 35-year-old bad news on lousy anniversaries just to remind itself why it feels so perpetually shitty about itself. This grumbling has become the reminder that my birthday draws near, as I was born two years and one week after the day Dis still calls its Black Monday.
The shape of the space that envelops this city is strange, warping its gravity, bending time. Though I took my first steps in the dawn of the ‘80s, much of my childhood was set against a particularly ‘70s backdrop. Even now, it’s clear that Dis will forever be roughly ten years behind the times. It’s as if the rest of the country is forced to drag us along at the end of a ten year length of rope, while we kick and scream and cling to anything that might keep us in the dismal past. 

The Recovery

After far too many days spent floundering in the aftermath of the excerpt's posting, I did some soul searching and found the courage and resolve to pick up where I'd left off and redouble my efforts. The first step was to contend with a sense of vagueness that had begun to plague my writing; I felt relatively lost within my own story, unsure of its direction or purpose. It was time to make use of the timeline I'd mentioned in my NaNoWriMo Day 1 post three weeks ago. The result, though helpful, also made the novel seem all that more daunting: 

Each "hash mark" represents a major event, to be chronicled in as much detail as I can manage. I numbered them, and jotted a brief summary for each on another sheet of paper. By the time i was finished, I had a list of 83 "episodes" to write about; as of today, that number is closer to 103. To say I'd overwhelmed myself would be an understatement. I discovered an entirely new problem—how do I decide which moments are essential to the story I'm trying to tell?

As it turned out, the real crux lay in the fact that I have been, in truth, working on what could easily be four separate volumes. Whether or not I'll continue to work toward a single, complex work or divide it into its individual thematic components is something that will take longer than the remaining 10 days of NaNoWriMo to decide. The most immediate problem, that of divining the key scenes to be written, is also something that can wait for the editing process. Working toward the writing of as many words as i can muster by month's end, it would behoove me to simply work on all of them. I can separate wheat from chaff at my leisure, in December. And January. And so on...

The Comeback

I know this is a lot more thought than one should be putting into National Novel Writing Month—I've always been an over-thinker. To any newcomers reading this: Don't do as I've done. Just write. For the love of literature, just write. I've made such a mess of my run this year, and while I resolve to regret nothing, and this all may prove beneficial in the end, it's surely not the easy way to go about reaching the 50k mark. It would have been better had I been able to keep more or less steadily on track, as I'd done in 2011:

By this point in the month I was behind, but only marginally so, all things considered. Though I lagged further behind the pace as the deadline approached, the rally of the last three days put me across the finish line. 

It's almost unfair to compare this year's struggles to 2013's WriMo success, which was easily a freak of nature in its own right:

This is the one year anniversary of the day I ended a week-long dry spell by going for broke, writing just under 17,000 words to reach the goal by the day's end. I don't think it's a feat I should ever like to duplicate, but if ever I needed such a leap in productivity, it'd be now:

At my current pace, I'll reach the 50k mark on New Year's Eve. This is misleading, of course, as it factors in all those days of regrettable inactivity. The real take-away here is the last three days' progress. 500+ words per day won't get me to the goal by November 30th, but they're merely the seeds of things to come. 

In the absence of the word sprints (which I still wholeheartedly recommend, by the way) I've recovered some of the passion behind that excerpt, the first paragraphs I composed for this year's novel. I've replaced the needle that had been missing from my compass, and my voice has found its way back into my writerly throat. These last three days have been the most consistent—and consistently fulfilling—work I've done all month, and suddenly I feel entirely unlike someone who's struggled three long weeks at the keyboard. I feel as if I'm starting anew, entirely refreshed, and ready to tackle the challenge of not only reaching the 50k word mark, but 100k and beyond. I'm ready, that is to say, to write a novel.

I have 10 days left to reach the goal for this year's NaNoWriMo, which means I have to meet or exceed a daily goal of 3,249 words. It seems like a lot—nearly double the standard daily goal of 1,667—but for someone who flirts with 2k-word hours, it isn't nearly so bad as one might think. And unlike the beginning of the month, I finally have a firm grasp on the novel I'm writing. I finally have the voice I'd lost almost immediately after the month began. I'm ready to tell this story, and it's going to be told. I have a steep climb ahead of me fly instead.

Friday, November 7, 2014

NaNoWriMo '14: A Fly in the Ointment—Recapping Week 1

The first week of National Novel Writing Month is drawing to a close, and I'm not going to lie—it's been a rough one. After what felt like a terrific start at the stroke of midnight November 1st, I experienced a few days of painful floundering. Thankfully, I have gotten some writing done—this isn't going to be a repeat of 2012's colossal failure—but I have yet to catch up to the cumulative total of daily goals:

7620 words written so far; Day 7's goal—11666
I know NaNoWriMo is meant to be an exercise in discipline, that it's not about the story or its quality so much as putting in the hours, but I find it exceedingly difficult to throw myself into work I don't fully believe in. And while I do believe in the idea behind this year's novel, the writing has been dreadfully stilted. There's no art in it, no color or flavor. I think this may speak to a larger issue, stemming from the challenges I've faced over the past several months. I've often said that I would consider my life a success, regardless of outcome, so long as it could be said I lived my life artfully. Unfortunately, it's become increasingly obvious that I've lost something of that zeal. To put it in clinical terms, I believe I'm suffering from a blunted affect, a diminished experience and expressiveness of emotion; to put it in simple terms, I am depressed, and it's killing my literary mojo. 

...which might just be fitting for a novel named after a city in Hell.

This doesn't mean this year's WriMo effort is in jeopardy, at least not yet. During the few productive bursts of writing I've managed to put forth, I've found it easy enough to get about 2k words down each hour. This means it should only take two hours to catch up, and so there's little anxiety to speak of—at least for today. As the month progresses, I do worry that this sense of discouragement over the "flat" nature of my writing will increase, slowing my efforts, leading to days like those first few, in which I wrote nothing at all. The easiest solution is to ensure that doesn't happen, to continue chopping away steadily, however I might feel about the work I'm doing. I'll still be left contending with the overall problem, but that's nothing new, especially not this year.

On the positive side of things, I have been having a terrific time during these productive fits. It took a few days, and setting up a few time-honored traditions, but it finally feels like a proper NaNoWriMo. All it took was a few word sprints on Twitter and their accompanying shenanigans, a pot of Earl Grey tea, and a few boxes of Fruit Delights—a seasonally available confection comparable to Turkish Delight, an absolute favorite of mine and essential to my Novembers. 

In addition to these WriMo rituals, I added a first for me—the purchase of this year's participants' shirt, "The Magic Equation":

Picture from the National Novel Writing Month Donation Station & Store, courtesy of The Office of Letters and Light
I also pre-ordered my winner's shirt, and there's no way I'll allow myself to own that without having earned it. I'm in this for the long haul, even if it winds up feeling longer than I expected. Week One hasn't been a bust, and the month won't be either. 

Part of what I love about writing is how much I learn about myself in the process. It's from this recent spate of work that I learned the extent of these recent struggles of mine, and hopefully this new-found awareness will be the first step in resolving matters. That would, in turn, help me improve my writing. As writing and my life feed into each other this way, I continue to grow, and I really can't be depressed by that at all. The writing may be slow and, at times, painfully dull, but it's for a good cause. I'll keep writing the good write, and hope anyone else out there who might be struggling will do the same. 

Drink Tea and Carry On

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Writer at the Gates of Dawn: NaNoWriMo—Day 1

National Novel Writing Month 2014 is finally here, and the previous weeks' apprehension and doubt seem as a distant fever dream, every bit as ridiculous as they are gone. Like so many, I eagerly awaited the strike of midnight to begin this year's novel. The paralysis of staring into the abyss of a blank page lasted no more than thirty minutes, and by 1am I had done away with the pressures that once plagued the entirety of past Novel Writing Months. Though there will no doubt be pressures galore as my word count struggles under duress of the looming deadline, the battle is already won: I remembered that NaNoWriMo is meant to be fun.

There's still much work to be done, both on the page and off; I fully intend to make a serious attempt at completing a novel worthy of publication, and that calls for outlines, notes, and timelines. A few months ago, using graph paper, I designed a timeline specific to the composition of this novel in particular. It's meant to enable me to divide a single, 35-year timeline into five 7-year portions:

I think it will take a system of color-coded symbols and indicators, as with footnotes, that correspond to entries on an accompanying number of pages fleshing out the basic narrative in chronological order. 

Honestly, this level of organization and planning has me inordinately excited.

There's also a decent amount of research to be done in terms of necessary story details, in addition to the standard technical studies and review of inspirational materials—works in a similar milieu or style, works that keep me motivated.

Much as it won't always feel as such, there's plenty of time for all of that. Soon the pressure will mount, of course, and the material itself will no doubt play a part in weighing me down as well. For now, it's wonderful just to have awakened on November 1st with a few quality paragraphs under my belt. Time for a little more sauntering into the work's early stages. It's a glorious morning to be a writer...